Recently I wrote about my conversion to believing in alternative closures for wine bottles as well as the experiences of six Washington wineries that are using them. Today I give my closing argument on this topic.
Following my last post, I wrote on Facebook that I was considering starting a memorial on-line for people to list the names of the corked bottles they had and the occasion, such as “2001 Wine Name. My Brother’s birthday.” While I was being facetious, I liked the idea of people having a space where they could commiserate about the loss of a corked bottle.
Personally, I don’t mention the names of the wineries when a bottle is corked, at least in public spaces. Why? Because 1) I believe many people will think it reflects negatively on the winery in some way – that it’s the winery’s fault and 2) it could happen to any winery using cork so why bother?
As I have thought more about this though and listened to various people’s thoughts, I have started to reconsider this position. Rather than being helpful in some way by not talking more openly about corked bottles, I feel like perhaps I am being complicit. I believe many wineries are somewhat unaware of the issue. When I say unaware, I am referring specifically to the incidence of cork taint in their wines and the resulting effects. I believe this is because most consumers do not say anything.
In terms of consumers, let’s focus on two types – the average wine drinker who buys a bottle and goes home and opens it that night or that week, and the wine collector who buys and ages wine for later consumption.
In terms of the average wine drinker, one of three things happens when they have a corked bottle of wine. The first is the person doesn’t realize the bottle is tainted; they just think the wine is bad. This person is unlikely to buy from your winery/wine store again unless they have some compelling reason to. For a long time when I had a corked bottle of wine, I was like a rat responding to a toxin. It would be some time before I would buy another bottle from that winery or pull one from the cellar. This is even after I knew better. The fear of another corked bottle was still there.
The second scenario is the person who realizes that the wine is corked and brings it back to the place they bought it. For wineries, this is your best case scenario. I would be interested to hear from retailers and wineries how often people return corked bottles. Is it even slightly close to the incidence rate of corked wines? What about all those other missing bottles? For many, bringing a bottle of wine back to the store and saying that there is something wrong with it is intimidating not to mention a hassle. The third scenario is the person who realizes the wine is corked and doesn’t bother to return it. How many of these scenarios are damaging to your winery and your brand?
Now let’s talk about the second type of consumer, the collector who buys and ages wine for later consumption. This person saves wines for special moments, deliberating over when to open that special bottle. “No. Not that one. I’m saving it for a special occasion.” An entire event, Open That Bottle Night, was generated around this phenomenon. For aged wines, there is no ability to replace the bottle when it is tainted. The money is long, long gone. The experience it was meant for is affected. Sure, a person can contact the winery and ask for another bottle. Talk about a pain in the neck. Chances are if a person does contact the winery, they will get a bottle from a newer vintage. Not the same bottle at the same moment it was planned for. Not the same. And for high-end wineries, aren’t these the exact people you want to be buying your wines in the future? Do you really think this isn’t going to have some effect?
If you are not a wine collector and are having a hard time imagining what having a long saved bottle of wine end up being corked must be like, let me try to bring this scenario to life for you. Remember the movie Sideways? During the movie, Miles talks about a particular bottle of wine he is saving, a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, that he has been waiting for the perfect opportunity and person to drink the bottle with. In the movie’s darkest moment, Miles drinks the bottle at a fast food restaurant, pouring the wine under the table into a paper cup. What could be sadder than that? Imagine if you will, that he gets the girl in the end and that when he tries the wine, it’ s corked.
Most people I talk to at wineries – and most retailers – wish consumers would more readily contact them when they have a bad bottle. They know the negative effect it can have. That said, I think most would be aghast at the thought of having the names of their wines listed somewhere on a ‘Corked Memorial.’ Why? Because of the consumer perception problem it would cause which is my point exactly. There already is a consumer perception problem. It’s just a silent one.
In closing, I say to both consumers and wineries, how long can we afford to have this go on? Everybody loses when bottles are corked. To consumers I say, it’s time to speak up! Take those bottles back to where you bought them. Call up the winery and ask for a replacement. Have no shame in saying what winery a corked bottle was from. Sing it out loud. It will either be a great public education effort or, more likely, will lead wineries to reconsider their position. To wineries I say, I loved cork too. I have learned to love another. Join us!